*College stats taken from thebaseballcube.com, minor-league stats taken from fangraphs.com and MLBfarm.com
Last week, Baseball America released their Arizona Fall League (AFL) rosters. For those not familiar with the AFL, read more here. In short: each August, all 30 MLB clubs select six players from their minor-league rosters to participate in the fall league. While the minor-league playoffs wrap up toward the end of September, the AFL serves as a domestic developmental league starting in October.
The AFL is prestigious, bringing together some of the top minor-league talent each year. Aside from well-known names, organizations tend to also invite rising prospects who have flown under the radar. Although these NL Central prospects have gotten little public hype, their recent numbers have impressed enough to earn an invite to the AFL, making them intriguing names to watch in the coming months.
Barrett Astin – RHP 6’1” 200, Blue Wahoos (Reds AA), Age: 24 (Video)
Astin had a strong 2012 season as a closer during his sophomore year at the University of Arkansas, helping a well-staffed Razorback team to the College World Series. However, he started all five of his appearances in the Cape Cod league that off-season, where he posted an underwhelming 6.23 K/9 and 2.91 BB/9 through 21.2 IP. He went back to college to find himself in the rotation for the majority of the year, though scouts questioned his durability as a starter as he continued to struggle to go deep into games, going more than 6 IP in only one start. He was signed in the 3rd round in the 2013 draft at slot value by the Brewers, soon being dealt to the Reds for Jonathan Broxton a year later.
Despite being omitted from MLB.com’s top 30 Reds prospects this season, the Reds chose to send Astin to the AFL after having an impressive season in AA alternating between the bullpen and the rotation. In 103.1 IP, he posted an 8.39 K/9 (his career high) with a 2.18 BB/9 and a strong 65.02 GB%, numbers that would play well at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. His ERA sits at 2.26, which is best in the Southern League and roughly 40% better than the league’s average ERA. His low BABIP (.246) and high LOB% (78.9%) may lead to some regression when it comes to run prevention, but FIP still has him pegged at an above average 3.37. His 11 starts have yielded similar peripherals to his numbers from out of the bullpen. However he still showed durability issues, only averaging 5.1 IP/GS this year.
The question is the same now as it was the day he was drafted: can he stay a starter? Considering the Reds have Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, and possibly Cody Reed solidified in the rotation with prospects Amir Garrett and Robert Stephenson expecting to be in the rotation as well, my guess is that Astin’s ticket to the big leagues will be as part of the relief corps for the Reds. His inability to show consistent stamina and his better numbers against righties than lefties (all 8 HR allowed this year have been off of lefties) all indicate he is better suited as a bullpen option. Considering the Reds’ well documented bullpen problems this year, Astin could have his MLB debut with a rebuilding Reds team sometime next year if all goes well. His AFL stint should give a good indication on which direction he is trending heading into his 25th birthday.
James Farris – RHP 6’2” 210, Smokies (Cubs AA), Age: 24 (Video)
Another participant in the 2012 College World Series, Farris started and pitched seven innings in Arizona’s World Series-clinching win. He was drafted in the 15th round by the Astros after a below-average junior campaign, only to return to Arizona for his senior year. He was drafted in the 9th round by the Cubs at the end of the his last and best year playing in the Pac-12.
Baseball America’s draft-day scouting report notes that Farris does not have overpowering stuff and transformed into a smart, command-oriented pitcher over the course of his four seasons with the Wildcats (subscription required). His best pitch is his changeup, with a 85-89 mph fastball, which he mixes speeds to add cut to, and a below-average curveball to round out his arsenal. His lack of an average third pitch gave the Cubs reason to put him in the bullpen, where he has spent all 127 innings in the minors thus far, and is part of the reason he is not a top-30 prospect in a highly talented Cubs farm system according to MLB.com.
The Cubs’ decision to put Farris in late-inning situations out of the bullpen has paid dividends thus far. In his minor-league career, he holds a 2.91 ERA with a 10.70 K/9 to a 2.69 BB/9, despite only holding a 6.95 K/9 throughout his four years starting at Arizona. He has an average ground-ball rate and the ability to suppress power (as he also did in college), only yielding 2 HR in his professional career thus far. Because of his high strikeout rate and low HR/FB%, ERA estimators have been lower than his ERA.
Farris’ performance thus far has been a pleasant surprise considering the bargain the senior signed for only $3,000. The question surrounding Farris is whether or not he can sustain the numbers he has put up to this point in his career. His sample size has been relatively small, so tracking Farris’ outings in the AFL should shed more light onto the legitimacy what he has done the past couple years. With key pieces Aroldis Chapman, Pedro Strop, Trevor Cahill, and Travis Wood all free agents to be, there could be some room for Farris sometime next year depending on how the Cubs’ off-season and spring training play out.
Corey Littrell – LHP 6’3” 185, Redbirds (Cardinals AA), Age: 24 (Video)
Littrell was drafted out of high school in the 43rd round by the Nationals, but was too committed to the University of Kentucky to sign. After starting for the Cats for three years, he was drafted in the 5th round by the Red Sox for near slot value in 2013. He was traded the next year to the Cardinals in the deal that brought Joe Kelly and Allen Craig to Boston in exchange for John Lackey, Littrell and $1.75MM in cash.
A lanky pitcher who lost 10 pounds since draft day according to the Memphis Redbirds official roster, Corey has a similar frame to his father and grandfather, who both played professional baseball as well. According to MLB.com, Littrell is the 29th-best prospect in the Cardinals organization. He throws a fastball that sits 88-90 that plays as average because of above-average command down in the zone. He also has three other average offerings: a changeup, a curveball and a cutter with slider-like action. He was a starter until this year, where he has come out of the bullpen in 52/53 appearances between AA Springfield and AAA Memphis.
After a quick and effective stint in AA to start off his 2016 campaign, Littrell struggled with control in AAA with a hefty 5.08 BB/9 paired with a slightly above-average 8.59 K/9 in 51.1 IP. One positive note for Littrell is that he has done well controlling balls in play since his switch to the bullpen. His 2016 ground-ball rate is up to an above-average 51.5%, which is a career high. His run prevention, however, has been subpar due to his high walk rate, yielding a 4.56 ERA and 5.01 FIP in Springfield.
Since the Cardinals bullpen has been average to date according to WAR and the majority of the relievers are controlled through next year, there may not be a spot for Littrell to begin the Cardinals’ 2017 season unless he impresses from here on out. However, if he can regain the control in the AFL that he had before his promotion to AAA and keep it through the beginning of next year, he could become an option for the Cardinals sometime next season.
Read any article on the Cubs and you’ll find praises on pretty much everything they’ve been doing this season. Rightfully so. Their MLB leading 49-26 record deserves some praise. The national spotlight has been focused on their young talent for the first couple months of the season, and even more so recently with the call up of top catching prospect Willson Contreras, who hit a home run on the first pitch he saw in the majors. That sums up how the season has been going so far for the Loveable (No Longer) Losers. But what about the vets? Not many people outside of Chicago have noticed just how good the second-oldest Cub, John Lackey, has really been this season. The 37-year-old has complemented the 1-2 punch of Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester very well this year and is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career: (courtesy of fangraphs.com and brooksbaseball.net):
His strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate are up (a lot), his opponents batting average against is down (a lot), and his walk rate has virtually remained the same. Plus there’s the fact that his slider has been pretty devastating this year. According to the wSL (weighted Slider) metric on FanGraphs, which uses run expectancy to evaluate the effectiveness of a pitch, he’s had the third-best slider in the league to date. Surprisingly, Lackey’s slider has been more effective than some of the most well-known sliders in the game, including Jose Fernandez, Justin Verlander, and Madison Bumgarner. It’s pretty incredible considering his slider has been nowhere near this good in the past. In case you were wondering what it looks like, here’s a clip courtesy of baseballsavant.com:
That’s some nasty break coming in at around 87 MPH, according to MLBAM. Some nasty vertical break, to be specific. Taking a look at seasonal data from brooksbaseball.com, Lackey’s had an increase in average vertical movement this year.
(FanGraphs primer for those who aren’t familiar with Pitch F/X: Pitch F/X movements are based around a hypothetical pitch that has absolutely no spin, so when a pitch breaks “up”, it means that it does not fall as much on the way to the plate as a spin-neutral pitch would.)
For the first time in his career, he is averaging negative vertical movement, without changing the horizontal movement or velocity on the pitch. That’s a borderline curveball. Typically, most breaking pitches with negative vertical movements are curveballs, but Lackey’s slider teeters right on the edge. Surprisingly, It’s not something he hasn’t done before. His minimum and maximum values for vertical movement have been pretty similar the last few years according to Brooks Baseball. And it’s not like he’s throwing in a different spot to righty hitters. His heat maps for his slider for his career and in 2016 look virtually identical:
He loves throwing it low and away. It does look like he’s been getting his pitch more in the dirt this year though. That’s a byproduct of how he’s been maxing out his vertical break this year, and without sacrificing anything else. How’s that, you might ask? That’s a difficult question.
Here’s one interesting theory. There’s only one other pitcher on that leaderboard that averages negative vertical movement. I’ll save you the suspense: it’s teammate Jason Hammel, who has a pretty effective slider himself. And according to the Pitch F/X data from brooksbaseball.com, their sliders are eerily similar:
Hammel has had one of the best sliders in the past few years. Maybe he’s helped guide Lackey into using his slider more effectively. Purely speculation, but an interesting thought nonetheless. Regardless of his new(ish) changes and whether or not they’re here to stay, hitters better start adjusting to Lackey’s slider.
The NL Central was one of the most talked about divisions in the back half of last season. The Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs surged forward to control the three best records in baseball. For the Cubs, eventual rookie of the year Kris Bryant helped his team grab the second wild card spot while taking the league by storm. And the merchandise industry. With 23 of the top 100 MLB.com prospects being held by the NL Central heading into next year and many of those players with a 2016 ETA, it is only fitting to look at who might be the next Kris Bryant. Who will be called up in the next couple years and make an immediate impact that captivates the league?
With the Brewers and Reds in the midst of rebuilding, it is fair to say that although prospects like the Brewers’ shortstop Orlando Arcia (#6 MLB.com prospect) and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker (#34 MLB.com prospect) will likely have their shots in the Show, they will probably not have as big of an effect on the pennant race next season. For that reason, I did not include either team’s prospects despite them both having five top-100 prospects each. Fortunately, the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs all also have prospects knocking at the door who have the potential to impact the race for the NL central.
Willson Contreras (age 23) – C, Bats: R/Throws: R, Cubs (#1 C prospect, #50 overall prospect)
In Contreras, the Cubs have another young bat. With a smaller catchers fame of 6’1″ and 175 pounds, he led the Double-A Southern League in average (.333) as well as XBH (46). He also posted a strong wRC+ of 156. He began his 2015 campaign splitting time with Schwarber behind the plate in the minor leagues, but was seen as more likely to stay as a catcher with his above average arm. This allowed his former teammate to be called up as a left fielder while he continued developing his game in Double-A. He has the potential to be above average defensively if he can reach higher levels of consistency in his foot work, as noted by Dan Farnsworth at FanGraphs. His biggest step last year was improving his plate discipline and strength. Contreras ended the season with a walk rate of 10.9% ,higher than his previous year of 8.8 in A+, while cutting his strikeout rate down 8.9% to 11.9% in the process. He profiles as an athletic, contact hitting catcher who will provide many more doubles than homers. With more refinement, he could soon draw comparisons to Jonathan Lucroy.
The near future for Contreras is uncertain. He will more than likely stay in the minors next year, most if not all of it in Triple-A, to develop further due to the durable Miguel Montero and veteran David Ross holding down the backstop for the Cubs. This is not to mention Kyle Schwarber, who could very well still have a future as a catcher (there have been rumors of him being the personal catcher for Kyle Hendricks in 2016). However, the contracts for Montero and Ross are up in 2017 and 2016, respectively. With Montero showing signs of decline, Ross closing in on retirement, and Schwarber’s uncertainty as a long-term catching option, Contreras will soon have a window of opportunity to establish himself as the everyday catcher for the Cubs. The question is if it will be next year or the year after.
Tyler Glasnow (age 22) – RHP, Pirates (#2 RHP prospect, #10 overall prospect)
Outside of the 1-2 punch of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, the rest of the Pirates 2016 starting pitching does not look promising. Last year, the projected 2016 Pirates 3-5 starters Jeff Locke, Jon Niese,and Ryan Vogelsong had a FIP of 3.95, 4.41, and 4.53 respectively, all noticeably higher than the 2015 league average among qualified candidates (3.71). The Pirates farm system will be looking to fix this sooner rather than later in the form of two young pitchers: Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. For now, let’s focus on Glasnow. With his mammoth 6’8″ frame comes a high quality arsenal. His fastball and curveball both grade as plus or better pitches with an average changeup to compliment them. The issue with Glasnow is his command. In 41 IP in Triple-A during the second half of the season, Glasnow had a disturbingly high BB/9 of 4.83 (although his K/9 of 10.54 is also something to highlight). The problem stems from his mechanics, as his lanky body can sometimes make his pitching motion too long. An issue, but a fixable one. He draws comparisons to Tommy Hanson and, with projected improvements in his walk rates, looks to be on the verge to take his turn in the League.
It is more than likely that Pirates fans will get to see Glasnow get his turn this year. During the epic NL Central race last year, Pirates fans pleaded for Glasnow to be called up, but the Pirates decided to keep him in Triple-A to continue developing. A shaky back half of the starting rotation that also has questions of durability should allow the highly touted prospect to make his debut sometime this season. The timetable of this debut, however, is uncertain. GM of the Pirates Neal Huntington was quoted as saying that Glasnow and Taillon, the next prospect to be talked about, will appear in the second half of the season if not sooner.
Jameson Taillon (age 24) – RHP, Pirates (#54 overall prospect)
The former second overall draft pick has certainly has had a mountain to climb to regain his status as a top prospect. He was close to reaching the MLB until injuries set in. Following his 2014 Tommy John surgery, he missed last year as well after surgery to repair an inguinal hernia. With almost 30 months of not pitching in-game, he is now going through the normal pitching progression in spring training. Taillon features the same pitching arsenal as Glasnow, but with slightly less explosive stuff and better command. In 110 IP in Double-A in 2013, he posted a 8.7 K/9 and a mere 2.9 BB/9. These are strong numbers, but old ones. Regardless, Taillon is still projected to be a top of the rotation starter if he can stay healthy and show that his recovery is complete.
Depending on how well Taillon does in spring training and the beginning of the minor league season, he could be the first of these five prospects to make his 2016 MLB appearance. With the issues previously noted about the Pirates rotation, he has a big chance at seeing a good amount of innings at the major league level next year. If Taillon shows that he can pick up where he left off in 2013, he will be a strong presence in the Pirates rotation.
Alex Reyes (age 21) – RHP, Cardinals (#3 RHP prospect, #13 overall prospect)
Reyes is, in my opinion, the most dangerous man on this list. He is a young pitcher with explosive stuff in an organization that thrives in developing and refining young pitchers. And although I hate to admit it being a Reds fan, they have one of the better catchers in the game in Yadier Molina, who has been praised for working well with his staff. His fastball is his best pitch, hovering in the mid-90s, but has been clocked reaching triple digits (with spotty command) when he rears back. He also features a powerful curveball that he can use to throw for a strike as well as to get batters to chase. These two pitches are well complimented by his changeup, which although is just average, he knows how to use to make his other two pitches better. Reyes has been known to overthrow and lose command, but has the potential to settle as he is still only 21. He was handed down a 50-game suspension last season because of marijuana use that he will continue to serve at the start of next season. Before the suspension, he posted a 13.77 K/9 in 34.2 IP in Double-A after having a 13.71 K/9 in 63.2 IP of A+ ball. Yes, you read those numbers right. Oh, yeah, and he only gave up one home run all of last season.
Reyes knows how to pitch and, if he shows more development in his command in the minors next year, has a good chance at making his MLB debut. He may have even had a shot at making the Cardinals team out of spring training if he did not have to start the 2016 year under suspension. The Cardinals have a solid starting rotation that held up as one of the best last year, and one that added a good pitcher in Mike Leake, so there is no immediate rush for Reyes. However, do not be surprised if a mid-season call up of Reyes takes the league by storm in either the back end of the bullpen or even in the starting rotation itself.
Josh Bell (age 23) – 1B/OF, Bats: S/Throws: R, Pirates (#2 1B prospect, #49 overall prospect)
Bell was taken as a corner outfielder out of high school but, with the Pirates loaded outfield and Bell’s below average defensive capabilities, he was moved moved to the gaping hole in the Pirates organization: first base. At 6’2″ 235 pounds, most expected him to thump the ball. To this point the switch-hitter has failed to show he can produce more than average power. This is due to his swing, in which his bulky lower half is not fully utilized. His strong suits are hitting for contact and good understanding of the strike zone. Last year he posted 130 wRC+ with a solid 0.88 BB/K ratio through 426 PA in Double-A, only to one-up those numbers with a ridiculous 174 wRC+ and 1.40 BB/K ratio through 145 PA in Triple-A. Though in all 571 combined PA, he managed just 40 XBH. It is unlikely he will develop more pop which means the continued success of his contact hitting skills and development of defense at first are all the more important to watch.
Since the Pirates do not have a solid option at first base, the unspectacular Michael Morse and John Jaso will more than likely give way to Josh Bell sometime next season. He will, however, start in the minor leagues and be given some extra time to develop his defensive work before being called up. It is plausible to see Bell being plugged into the Pirates late season lineup to provide a team with a questionable pitching rotation (that may or may not have Glasnow or Taillon in it) a boost in offensive production.
2015 showed that former rebuilding teams could quickly emerge to be competitive by stacking their farm systems and having their young, talented players surge through the minor leagues. For the NL Central in 2016, I can see this trend continuing. With FanGraphs projecting the NL Central to have the Cardinals and Pirates chasing the Cubs for a playoff birth, prospects for these teams could mean the difference down the stretch between being a buyer and a seller, and getting a pennant or wild card birth. There’s a lot to be excited next season for these young players. With spring training games under way as I write this post, the wait is almost over.
The Astros were baseball’s biggest surprise of the 2015 season. Few will dispute that. This was, however, preceded by some of the worst seasons in Houston history. They posted three consecutive 100+ loss seasons from 2011-2013 followed by a somewhat bounceback 2014 campaign, posting a 70-92 record. Although they were not quite back to the winning tradition that ‘Stros fans enjoyed during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, young potential began to show, headed by silver slugger Jose Altuve. The combination of young talent with free agent and trade market moves led to an unexpected 86-76 season and the first playoff birth since 2005 (where they eventually got swept by the White Sox in the Fall Classic). Part of this success was due to a new-found, solid bullpen and front five led by Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. However, the more exciting part of their success — at least for the average fan — was the explosive offense.
Houston’s 2015 opening day lineup included four new players to the organization: Luis Valbuena, Jed Lowrie, Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis, all of which had 15+ home run seasons in the past. These lineup changes were complemented by a new hitting coach in Dave Hudgens, who preaches that being aggressive in the zone leads to a higher OBP, harder hit balls, and more runs scored. This proved to be a highly successful match, as the Astros posted impressive power numbers. They were second in the league in ISO, SLG, and home runs (all behind the Blue Jays), according to fangraphs.com. Their team wRC+ of 105 was 4th best in the league and was the best wRC+ since back in 2000 – the first year of Minute Maid Park. The most recent yearly changes have been the most impressive numbers, however.
From 2014 to 2015, they had the biggest increase in all three aforementioned categories of any team in baseball, adding 67 home runs, .046 ISO, and .054 SLG. They also increased their Z-swing% by 3.5% to 70.2%, the highest in the league and right in line with Hudgens’ approach. Surprisingly, they did this while decreasing their K% (albeit only by 0.9%). This leads to the question of how big of an impact Hudgens had on the organization and its multitude of young power hitters.
There were 11 Astros who had double-digit home runs, all who are younger than 30 years old. Five of those players broke the 20-home-run mark (Gattis – 27, Rasmus – 25, Valbuena – 25, Chris Carter – 24, Carlos Correa – 22). This is not including 29-year-old Carlos Gomez who was acquired in the latter half of the season, who only hit 12 home runs throughout his injury-plagued 2015 season. With so much raw power and youth in the organization, an active hitting coach is crucial to develop successful hitting approaches and general consistency at the plate. Hudgens seems to have been very successful in extracting the most out of his hitters in his first year.
Many of these hitters took strides to becoming more balanced at the plate. For example, slugger George Springer who posted a miserable 33.0% K% in his 2014 rookie campaign came down to a more reasonable 24.2% in 2015 while posting an above-average ISO of .183. The biggest surprise in this is that that is his lowest strikeout rate of any full year in his baseball career, including rookie and high-A ball. Another highly noticeable change is the power numbers of All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve. Known for being more of a contact hitter, the 5’6″ Venezuelan hit 15 home runs (the first double-digit home run season for Altuve) and improved his ISO from a below-average .112 in 2014 to a career high of .146. Teammates Luis Valbuena and Colby Rasmus also posted career highs in ISO at .214 and .236, respectively.
The good news for Astros fans is that this offense appears sustainable. The BABIP numbers of these Astros hitters slightly decreased for the most part. The glaring exception is George Springer, who had a BABIP of .342 compared to his rookie year’s .294 (but with his strikeout rate decreasing 8.8% and OBP increasing by .031, only time will tell if he can continue his impressive numbers at the plate once pitchers adjust and approach him differently). The Houston front office has built an offense around around younger hitters with a lot of raw power. This is not to mention their speed, as they ranked 3rd in stolen bases last year. So although the AL West has shown to be unpredictable in recent years, the way the Astros have built their team may very well provide some sustainability for them moving forward.
Side note – don’t expect the Astros to remain quiet in the off-season just because of their youth-heavy core. They have already begun shopping Jake Marisnick after retaining Colby Rasmus with a 15.8MM qualifying offer.
It was a defining moment in the 2015 World Series. Proven closer Jeurys Familia watches as a slow chopper is hit to third baseman David Wright. Wright glances back to Eric Hosmer on third and throws to first. Without hesitation, Hosmer sprints home and beats out a wild throw from first baseman Lucas Duda to stun the crowd at Citi Field and tie the game in the 9th. Hosmer made a big play on a big stage. But that wasn’t the only time in his career, the 2015 season, or even that World Series that Hosmer has shown a flair for the dramatic in big moments.
So I did a little digging.
The statistic “Clutch” quantifies how much better or worse a batter performs in high-leverage situations compared to a neutral situation. This does not necessarily make or break a good player. However, the statistic can show the track record of a player’s ability (or inability) to elevate his own game in big moments. The scale is centered at an average player clutch rating of 0 and typically ranges from -2 to 2 in any given season, with 2 being considered both a rare and excellent rating. This statistic is better used to look at what has happened in the past rather than predict the future. To my surprise, Hosmer has dominated the clutch leader boards the last five years. Not Miggy, not Longo, not Big Papi. Hosmer.
Since his debut season in 2011, Hosmer has a cumulative clutch rating of 5.49 while the league average has been -0.38 according to fangraphs.com. The second-highest in that time span? Jacoby Ellsbury at 4.41, over a full point away. To this point in his career, Hosmer has a cumulative clutch rating that ranks 22nd in baseball history. He is ahead of legends such as Ken Griffey (5.35), Rickey Henderson (4.91), and fellow Royal George Brett (4.79). His 2015 campaign that yielded a clutch rating of 2.17 was one of the top 100 greatest clutch seasons ever recorded (tied for 63rd). Although there is no way to prove Hosmer will remain a clutch hitter, he is currently on pace to smash the all-time highest career clutch rating set by Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn (9.49).
So what makes Eric Hosmer clutch at the young age of 26? His high baseball IQ. He is constantly aware of the situation and knows what he has to do to produce runs for his team. Let’s use this past World Series as an example. In Game 1, Hosmer came to the plate in what was easily the one of the biggest at-bats of the season. Bottom of the 14th. Tie game. Bases loaded. Nobody out. Infield in. Seasoned veteran Bartolo Colon on the mound.
(Video copyright of MLB Advanced Media)
See what he did there? He knew the infield was in and he knew he could not do two things: strike out or hit the ball on the ground. He had to get the ball deep in the air, despite having a GB% of 52.2% in 2015. He gets a fastball in the heart of the zone and lifts the ball into right, deep enough to get the winning run home and record the seventh walk-off of his career.
The next day, he comes up in another big situation against young pitching phenom Jacob deGrom. Bottom of the 5th. Tie game. Runners on second and third.
With Escobar’s speed on second, Hosmer knew all he needed was a base hit to give the Royals a two-run lead. He sticks with a slider that caught a little too much of the bottom half of the plate and ropes a grounder up the middle. The 26-year-old didn’t let the moment get to him and over-swing, but instead took what the pitch gave to him. Clutch.
Although Royals fans have seen rather inconsistent numbers from Eric Hosmer through the first five years of his career, it is not overlooked how important he has been to bringing a winning atmosphere back to Kansas City as they had hoped he would. After all, he was the third overall pick in 2008 MLB amateur draft. But big expectations and big moments don’t scare Hosmer. He’s been the most clutch hitter in the league.
Brandon Crawford is coming off an All-Star season in which he not only won his first Gold Glove, but his first Silver Slugger as well. The last to win both awards in San Francisco? Barry Bonds in 1997. Although Crawford may not have all the tools that Bonds did, he has come a long way since he made his debut at shortstop for the Giants in May of 2011. Crawford entered the league projected as a shortstop with plus defense, but also as an offensive project. So what sparked him to have the second-most home runs (21) among all shortstops, more than his totals from 2013 and 2014 combined, and a SLG% of .462 that led the all other qualified shortstops in the league by more than 20 points? An aggressive approach at the plate paired with slight mechanical adjustments. Consider Crawford’s Z-Swing%:
Now consider his hard-hit%:
These graphs, courtesy of data from FanGraphs, tell an interesting story. For the first four years of his career, Crawford’s Z-Swing% and hard-hit% had a direct correlation. In the first two years of his career, Crawford had a Z-Swing% that was barely above average in the league and a hard-hit% that was below average. Last year, however, his Z-Swing% skyrocketed to more than 8% above league average and he had a hard-hit% that was, for the first time in his career, above average. Yet, there is something odd about his recent success at the plate.
Crawford was not making more contact than in the past; he had just improved on the quality of contact with his new swing and more aggressive approach. Last year, he posted the 16th-worst SwStr% (percentage of swings and misses) in the league at 13.6% and a below-average 73.6% Contact%. Crawford also showed more aggression on pitches outside the zone, posting an O-Swing% (percentage of swings on pitches outside the zone) of 35.2% which is also worse than the league average of 31.8%. All of these were the worst numbers in their respective categories for his young career.
Despite all of this, his aggression at the plate and his change in mechanics led him to become a top power hitter at his position last year and a legitimate threat in the second half of the Giants batting order. Although the trend in these numbers may be hard to fully validate due to the small sample size, the new-found pop in the bat could make Crawford a much more valuable player (as finding power among shortstops in today’s league is a rarity). If his Z-Swing% and hard-hit% continue to be linearly related, Crawford may very well continue his progress in 2016 and bring power to a Giants lineup that was fourth to last in total home runs last season. One thing is for certain: his flow will remain among the game’s elite.